Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families: Executive Summary

The years spent in primary school are especially important to children's long-term educational success. Yet tens of thousands of young New York City children carry the difficulties of their home lives into the classroom, where they intrude on a child's ability to learn and thrive.

For many children, problems at home prevent them from attending school regularly. The analysis presented in this report finds that chronic absenteeism in New York City begins in the earliest grades and is far more serious than has previously been reported. Our research found that more than 90,000 children in grades K through 5—or 20 percent of total enrollment—missed at least a month of school during the 2007-08 school year.

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There are many reasons for high rates of chronic early-grade absenteeism: health issues such as asthma, transportation problems (particularly for children with disabilities), and dislocations caused by eviction or traveling between homeless shelters. There are issues of family instability, such as a mother's depression or illness. Absences are also associated with cultural issues such as language barriers, and with problematic family priorities, including extended family vacations during the school year. The schools themselves bear a responsibility for attendance, both in their attention to the issue and in their efforts to create welcoming places where children want to be and that parents respect and value.

Addressing these issues directly, alongside absenteeism, may not only improve school success in the long-term, but also strengthen families and improve the quality of many children's lives.

With this in mind, the Bloomberg administration has coordinated efforts to bridge social services and education. Officials in the mayor's office have sought to share resources and information across city-run systems and bureaucracies. The city's Department of Education has developed management tools that track attendance data and alert school staff when children are absent for extended periods of time. The department has also instituted a school support structure that can help school principals leverage resources from other community institutions and government-funded services, including after-school programs, mental health care and much more.

Even so, in many neighborhoods, the challenges of child and family poverty are immense, and problems in school overlap directly with problems at home.

Consider as one example the relationship with child welfare: Each year, roughly seven of every 100 children in New York City come into direct contact with the child welfare system, either through child protective investigations, preventive family support services or foster care placements.† This rate of involvement more than doubles in the city's low-income communities, which generate the vast majority of child protective investigations and foster care placements. The majority of these children are school-age boys and girls. The large majority of these children also come from those city neighborhoods where they are most likely to live in poverty.

Not surprisingly, these are the same districts with the greatest levels of chronic absenteeism in the early grades. And these problems are substantial. According to our analysis of city schools' attendance data:

  • Last year, in 12 of New York City's 32 school districts, well over 25 percent of primary school children were chronically absent from school, missing more than 10 percent of the school year.

  • In five of these districts, fully 30 percent of primary school children, kindergarten through fifth grade, were chronically absent.

  • In six of these districts, between 8 and 11 percent of primary school children missed 38 or more days of school during the 2007/2008 school year.

  • And in 123 individual New York City primary schools, at least 30 percent of the children were chronically absent.

Notably, not every school in these districts has this problem. Some have learned how to reduce absenteeism. Others work with community-based organizations to reach out to families, to find resources to help them, or to seek intervention when problems are dire.

This research project began as an effort to determine whether community organizations and the city's public schools could work together to ease the burden on the city's child welfare system, which was swamped by reports of suspected abuse or neglect after the much publicized murder of Nixzmary Brown in early 2006. New York City experienced a 25 percent increase in reports of abuse and neglect from 2005 to 2007. By far the most substantial increase came from educational personnel. Today, reports from schools continue to come in at a historically rapid pace.

Many of these reports are filed because of excessive absenteeism in the early grades, which can be defined by authorities as "educational neglect."
We soon learned of research currently underway in other U.S. cities that reveals associations between early-grade chronic absenteeism and poverty, on the one hand, and children's poor educational achievement on the other. With this knowledge, we decided to assess the degree of chronic absenteeism in the early grades in New York City—and to explore effective school- and community-based counter strategies that might benefit families while improving attendance.

We wanted to see if efforts to build close working relationships between community-based organizations and schools might serve a dual purpose: stronger families and higher levels of student achievement in the schools.
We found notable efforts in various neighborhoods, ranging from the all-inclusive "community schools," with a wide range of social services, to more targeted programs that offer roving social workers to assist with behavior issues or family problems. Some of these efforts are designed to address absenteeism directly, while others are geared more toward providing mental health care or some other type of family support that can prevent a severe family crisis.

Strong research has found that chronic absenteeism among primary school children is often associated with "poverty, teenage motherhood, single motherhood, low maternal education, welfare, maternal unemployment, food insecurity, poor maternal health and multiple siblings."‡

The authors of a recent study, Hedy Chang and Marajosé Romero, found that rates of chronic absenteeism "jumped significantly once families were confronted with three or more risks . . . Multiple risks were most commonly found among children living in poverty, from a racial/ethnic minority group or in poor health."

In the following pages, we provide data on the full extent of early-grade chronic absenteeism in New York and identify the neighborhoods and schools most affected. We also provide data on chronic absenteeism in middle schools: In 96 of the city's 366 middle schools, more than 30 percent of children were chronically absent during the 2007-08 school year. In 27 schools, more than 40 percent were chronically absent.

Researchers and child protection professionals have found that chronic early absenteeism is at times a signal of much more serious problems in a family, such as domestic violence, child abuse, mental illness and criminal justice system involvement, all commonly associated with child welfare involvement.

This report also examines the role of schools in the child welfare system, including:

  • the training and reporting mechanisms that are the formal links between child protective services and the Department of Education; and

  • the huge variation that exists across the school system for outreach to parents whose children are missing school or who may be struggling with poverty, health issues and other high-risk factors.

This report provides data on school-based attendance "407" alerts, which are generated automatically to inform school leaders when a child has crossed a threshold of absenteeism, and which require action to determine the reasons for these absences. Our data show that schools are attending to the types of extended absences that trigger these alerts more quickly today than in years past. However, the data also show that the structure of the 407 system masks the full extent of chronic absenteeism, especially in the early grades.

We offer case studies of community-based organizations and schools that have worked to engage families, to offer them support, and to identify just what their students and families need.

Finally, we have synthesized workable ideas from school principals, attendance teachers, social workers and city officials. These recommendations, on page 5, offer direction from the field in addressing the intertwined problems discussed in this report. We suggest an approach for targeting schools with the greatest need, including a possible structure for supporting practical assessments of the problem, followed by effective working partnerships between principals and skilled community-based organizations.

This project is far from complete. We do not yet have conclusive evidence that a wide-ranging strategy to establish closer relationships between community organizations and schools will both strengthen families and improve student achievement. Such a strategy has not yet been pursued in New York with these dual objectives in mind.

We do know, however, that chronic absenteeism in elementary schools is disproportionately a problem in poor and minority communities and it immediately puts students behind their middle class peers. The academic pressures build over time—and build quickly. While the reasons behind absenteeism and related issues of child welfare are extremely complex, dedicated principals in New York City have proven that this is a problem that can be addressed with careful attention to underlying causes. New York can learn from them, and build a more formidable structure for strengthening schools by strengthening families.

†This is a conservative estimate based on the number of children interacting with child protective services, preventive services and foster care, and accounts for the duplication of the substantial number of children who interact with more than one of these systems.

‡Chang and Romero, "Present, Engaged and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades," National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University, September 2008. Page 14.

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